Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How Can We Stand By?  
By:  Josh Hickey, NY Teacher  

The day after the announcement that I won my first unopposed election for building representative almost ten years ago, a colleague approached me in the main office just outside of the mail room and said they saw the election results and were happy with the outcome, and how they voted for me.  A lot of different things to say raced through my head but in the end, all I said was “Thanks.”  I felt weird about the election being uncontested, and on top of that, I have a tendency to be terrible at small talk.  On the other hand, if I’m asked a direct question, particularly about something about which I have a strong opinion, I can talk at length.  Since I seem to have plenty of strong opinions, I can be a real hit at parties if you don’t mind skipping past the part where I’m awkwardly fumbling for something to say.

A situation similar to the scenario I described above happened over Memorial Day weekend; and I’ll skip past all the awkward parts, and paraphrase the real substance of the conversation I had.  We were talking about an article that had been shared over Twitter, and someone asked me if the increasing percentage of students in “low-income households” in public schools in the United States today was due to the expansion of voucher programs, knowing as we do that the majority of the students taking advantage of these programs are suburban children, or if these alarming conditions were the result of a greater percentage of the population experiencing poverty overall. I felt that the conversation that followed was an important one because the path it took intersects so intimately with many different aspects of our modern and professional lives as teachers; including socio-economic status and its impact on student achievement, attacks on education and education policy in general, state tax codes and their impact on schools and society in general, the role of unions in terms of class, and also the parallel decline of unions and the middle class in the United States.

Yes, it is true that since 2013, the majority (51%) of students attending public schools in this country experience the condition we call poverty.  Just in case you think that our state is an exception to this trend, New York stood at 48% in the study conducted by the Southern Education Foundation in 2015, and higher than surrounding states by a significant margin.    Many of the states with the highest levels of low income students attending public schools have no state tax, and therefore no mechanism to support local funding of public education.  In New York’s case, while we do have state taxes to help shoulder the cost of public education, we have instituted tax cap limits on local communities funding their schools.  Simply put, our society is slowly strangling public education to death by depriving it of the economic resources it needs to develop and educate the next generation.  Imagine if you had less and less money each year to run your household.  Eventually, it becomes unsustainable.   http://www.southerneducation.org/getattachment/4ac62e27-5260-47a5-9d02-14896ec3a531/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now.aspx.

It is also true that the middle class has been disappearing in the United States, and that this loss mirrors what has been happening to unions for nearly thirty years: namely, that when unions began to decline, the middle class went along with it.  If you are like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff in 2011, you might have said that the decline of  unions in the United States was a good thing, as they raise the cost of production and bring corruption with them wherever they go.  But when unions went, rising inequality began to fill the void.  According to a 2011 study by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122411414817):
From 1973 to 2007, private sector union membership in the United States declined from 34 to 8 percent for men and from 16 to 6 percent for women. During this period, inequality in hourly wages increased by over 40 percent. We report a decomposition, relating rising inequality to the union wage distribution’s shrinking weight. We argue that unions helped institutionalize norms of equity, reducing the dispersion of nonunion wages in highly unionized regions and industries. Accounting for unions’ effect on union and nonunion wages suggests that the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality—an effect comparable to the growing stratification of wages by education

You probably don’t need quotes or statistics to prove that your income hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of living, even during a so-called economic recovery, but I’ll provide some anyway.  The middle 60 percent of households earned 53.2 percent of national income in 1968. That number has fallen to just 45.7 percent. During that same period, nationwide union membership fell from 28.3 percent to a record-low 11.3 percent of all workers. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/18/union-membership-middle-class-income_n_3948543.html)

In the past, I have identified Teacher’s Unions as one of the last bastions of union membership and engagement left in this country, it is clear that the decline of unions mirrors declining incomes in terms of purchasing power and how there is a clear link between socio-economic status and educational attainment.  When our communities are impoverished and deprived of resources, education and schools suffer.   (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html)  During the course of the conversation that served as the impetus for this article, I was forced to ask: If what we see here is the outcome of decreasing union membership leading to a disappearing middle class, how can we, as union members, stand by and allow the kinds of decisions to be made over and over again that will not only harm our students, our communities, and our profession?   We cannot be silent victims of a system that is so clearly geared to a single outcome: shrinking the  middle class, where many of us belong, and in essence, perpetuating poverty.

There are many ways to change the circumstances described above, and not all tactics are going to work for everyone.  One viable route might be to run for office and try to make the government apparatus work in our favor, and while there are numerous avenues and ways to exercise your personal power, not everyone is going to run for office.  I’m no fan of party politics and I don’t live in New York State’s 9th assembly district like some of you do, but I was proud to work to get Christine Pellegrino, a teacher in the Baldwin School District elected to the State Assembly.  Assemblywoman-elect Pellegrino takes a stand against standardization efforts in Albany, against corruption, the unequal distribution of public tax dollars and many more issues that are important to us, locally.  A union member, in Albany, fighting for the issues that are of concern to us- this is the kind of thing we can replicate with our collective power.  With guidance and support from NYSUT, and help from volunteers around the state, we were able to mobilize and effectively place a teacher in Albany.  This alone is no silver bullet, and won’t solve our problems instantly, but it is a start and a sign that there is more that can be done, and that we are capable of doing it together.  Maybe this effective campaign will be the springboard for many other union members to engage in politics, or consider some other form of activism that can enhance the communities where we live and the education of the children we teach.

We recently held our own district-wide elections, and I see a lot of intersectionality there too.  For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, there were a series of choices for members to make.  Candidates visited schools, and spoke to members, talked about goals, visions for the future and plans about how to make those things a reality.  Membership was being courted and engaged in a way they had not experienced in their careers, and then were asked to choose the path they thought would lead to the best outcome.  I think it is also worth noting a few points about the election.  In less than one month’s time, there were several open-invitation meet-ups, telephone town halls, and listening tours that touched each building and gave membership a chance to interact and speak with the candidates about issues important to their professional careers and how  union leadership plays a  role in it.  What is more, while one “slate’s” candidates lost contested elections, a third of the membership indicated they were interested in making a change.  One third, and after less than one month of making their case to the membership.  Challenging a leadership position in a democratic election isn’t divisive and neither is disagreement about tactics.  That is how our processes are supposed to work, and we are stronger for having gone through the process.  It is even more important that our organization recognize the indispensability of all members, and that we work hard at keeping the lines of communication open so that all members can engage and make our union great.

While several positions went uncontested, membership entrusts leadership to guide them through what will prove to be some very trying times.  I hope that the kind of reaching out and engagement we saw during the campaigning will continue, and that we can all work together to fend off some of the challenges coming our way.    The election speaks clearly to me about the effectiveness of the work to engage membership that I have been a part of at the High School.   In five short months, attendance at the High School’s chapter meeting has doubled because of the hard work of union leadership at the High School working on educating and engaging the membership.  The building elections held two weeks after district elections, had 14 people run for 9 Faculty Council seats and 5 people run for 11/2 Building Representative positions. Membership wants to be engaged, they want to be informed and they are essential and integral to our continued success.

We are working together to build strength and unity into everything that we do as an organization.  Solidarity is the glue that binds the qualities of strength and unity together.  By working together as a professional organization, we can make changes internally, we can make positive changes in our communities, in our state and across the country.   It starts locally- in half of one school year, the High School union leadership has membership engaged and looking for more, we have members tapping into sources of information that relate to our professional lives and then looking to share that knowledge, brothers and sisters trying to pitch in by putting their names on the ballot and volunteering for service within our organization.  At the state level, we have brothers and sisters looking to organize around regional concerns like storm preparedness, protecting our environment and shorelines, dealing with the opioid epidemic, and stepping up into elected positions to be the change they want to see in the world.  When we see what we can accomplish together; when we assert our collective voices and project our collective power together, then we will be able to finally address broader societal problems.  These societal problems include the continued inequity in public school funding which impacts impoverished communities the most, the shrinking middle class, the cycle of poverty that cripples the chances of the disadvantaged from extricating themselves from a sub-standard socio-economic  status, low-paying jobs, and a social inequality that seeks to entrench the very few, and oppress the growing majority.

You can follow Josh on twitter @Socia1Studies   (that is the number one in the twitter handle)

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